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UPMC's potshots at Highmark off-target

About Luis Fábregas
Picture Luis Fábregas 412-320-7998
Medical Editor
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Luis Fábregas is an award-winning reporter who specializes in medical and healthcare issues as a member of the Tribune-Review’s investigations team.

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By Luis Fábregas

Published: Saturday, July 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When I saw UPMC's latest TV ad a few nights ago, I initially thought it was a scene from a Lifetime movie.

An elegant but frazzled, middle-aged woman stands in her beautiful kitchen while making a seemingly important phone call in what we're told is January 2015. She runs her fingers through her hair, pleading with someone to allow her to go to her longtime UPMC hospital.

“You want me to go to what hospital?” she says with the overly rehearsed, theatrical indignation that makes you wonder if the person at the other end suggested she go to a hospital in Cuba. “I've always gone to UPMC Passavant.”

Let's ignore the fact that no one calls the hospital “UPMC Passavant.” (The average person calls it simply Passavant.) And let's forget the strenuous, dramatic pauses and funereal background music.

The hyped-up woman has a point. She should be able to go where she wants. All she has to do is switch to an insurance plan that gives her access to UPMC.

Because the ad takes place in the future, the woman presumably has had a few years to make the change. Why she chooses to vilify Highmark instead of calling out her employer for not offering other insurance options is beyond me.

This ad and others, which began to air about two weeks ago, try hard to soften UPMC so it doesn't come across as the heavy in the ongoing battle with Highmark Inc. The point is to hammer the reality that, come 2015, those insured by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield will not be able to get care at UPMC because contracts between the two will have expired.

UPMC says it started the ad campaign to make people understand this will happen soon — it's 18 months away, to be exact. UPMC leaders believe it would be a disservice for someone to buy Highmark insurance thinking he or she could go to Passavant or any of UPMC's 19 other hospitals. UPMC won't outwardly admit it, but the ads aim to disparage Highmark and its new Allegheny Health Network.

“Highmark has a hospital?” says one of the ads. “Yeah, the old West Penn Allegheny Health System.” Extra points to the creative team for the subtle potshot, however unnecessary.

In another commercial, Dr. Steve Shapiro, UPMC's chief medical officer, shares his worry that in order to succeed, Highmark will need to shift 41,000 patients to its hospital network and away from UPMC. Shapiro is burdened with the dubious task of telling us that without those patients, UPMC could be forced to close Shadyside or Mercy.

As if that would ever happen. Though roughly 28,000 annual admissions to UPMC are patients who carry Highmark cards, you'll never hear Shapiro worry that UPMC might have to shutter its hospital in Sicily or its cancer centers in Ireland.

It's time to move past the stale UPMC vs. Highmark battle. It's time for patients to pick a side and go with the hospital network of their choice. Tell your employer that you want health insurance that lets you go where you want.

As for UPMC and Highmark, just tell us why we should pick you. Is it quality? Is it cost?

The smartest thing the ads do is revive the catchphrase, “Choose your health care as if your life depended on it.” It's a warning that could come from either UPMC or Highmark.

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or




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